Friday, September 15, 2006

Setting the Frame of Reference in Anglican Debate: Praying one for another and seeking mutual understanding

None of us looks at persons, events and things outside ourselves as a totally objective viewer. We look with one or another frame of reference and we see and interpret through this frame of reference. This is why two people can look at the very same thing/event and apparently see different things/realities therein – and daily politics is filled with such examples. It is not really a matter of honesty or dishonesty in question, but rather looking through different mindsets/spectacles and interpreting according to their structure.

There are major differences between the basic frame of reference of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party; and then within each Party there are varied frames of reference within the larger frame if reference. Again this is observable daily in US politics if one takes a little time to hear and ponder.

Now it is possible that we can change our frame of reference/mindset/spectacles/ way of seeing and interpreting through a conversion of mind or heart, which may come through reading, study, dialogue, felt experience, shock or some other circumstance, or a combination of causes. But, the fact of the matter is that for most of us for most of the time what we call our common sense is simply the operation of the one or more frames of reference within our mindset and perception. And this is so much part of us that we take it for granted unless we are made aware of it through perhaps painful self-examination or the perceptive observations of others that we are prepared to hear and receive.

What happens generally in terms of social, political, and cultural life, also occurs in religious life. We think and perceive and act through frames of reference. Let me illustrate this with reference to the way Episcopalians or Anglicans see aspects of the present crisis within the Anglican Family of Churches. Here are three frames of reference, from amongst many.

(a) Catholic truth at all costs mindset. If a primary frame of reference in the mind is that Catholic truth and order must always take first place, and that this truth requires absolutely that only men are to be in the ordained Ministry, then I will not be in favor of any kind of cooperation or fellowship with those fellow Anglicans who recite and believe the same Creed but who think that ordaining women is encouraged by Scriptural principles. Further, I shall not even want to know those who bless same-sex couples and ordain active homosexual persons.
(b) Jesus is the inclusive Savior mindset. If Jesus is seen in terms of the ideals of modern human rights, human dignity and human realization and fulfillment teaching, then I will welcome him as the One who seeks and finds, to affirm and bless, all who are on the outside or perimeters of society. I will affirm him as the embodiment of Love, and I will proclaim that God is Love and love in action is actually God in action. So the Church, following its Exemplar, Jesus, is to gather and affirm to the fullest the marginalized of today, especially right now the Lesbian, Bi-sexual and Gay persons, who await their full rights and dignity in society and church.
(c) Biblical authority but tempered by modern insights mindset. If Jesus is seen in New Testament terms as the Savior from sin and the Lord of the Church and our lives, (but at the same time the gracious patriarchalism/headship of the male, which is clearly within the written Word of Scripture, is seen as culturally conditioned and not applicable today), then I claim to be orthodox and biblically based and approve (heartily or reluctantly) such modern innovations as ordaining (orthodox) women and allowing re-marriage of divorced, sincere Christians in church, and the ordination and deployment of divorced and remarried clergy in the churches.

We may say that (a) is found amongst strict Continuing Churches, who prefer to stay outside the Anglican Communion altogether and have their own small, inward-looking jurisdictions, which may or may not co-operate now and then with each other. We may say that (b) is found in the radical progressives who dominate the membership of the General Convention and who believe that God has given them a prophetic role, which may include fracturing the Anglican Communion permanently. And we may say that (c) represents the leadership of the Anglican Communion Network in the Episcopal Church, where there is a desire for orthodoxy and international acceptance by the Anglican Communion but without losing certain fruit of modernity.

When you examine a real person – you or I – you will most probably find that he or she has not one frame of reference only but several; maybe one for family life, one for business life, one for politics, and one for religion but that there is one of these which is dominant (e.g., a kind of hierarchical model or a kind of democratic model).

If there is any value in what is stated above, and I hope that there is, then this probably means that the best way forward to create mutual Anglican understanding (before there is any talk of impaired or full communion) is to be prepared to talk about the frames of reference through which we exercise our “common sense”, look at others and perceive our duty in the Anglican Way.

Right now (a) and (c) could be, and maybe should be, talking for both claim the same foundation in Scripture and Creed, as well as the one and the same Anglican heritage. Both will most surely benefit from the sincere and patient sharing of their frames of reference. For the time being, however, sharing between (a) and (b) and even (b) and (c) would not be profitable, for the air temperature is too hot -- but maybe a little down the road it would be OK to begin!

And when we meet, let us forget about the common Episcopal thing of having “the Eucharist” (which can be divisive, because of lack of common agreement as to what is a proper rite and who is a proper celebrant and whether there is as yet true communion); better simply to hear a portion of Holy Scripture and a general prayer for the help of God to hear one another. Then to talk in an orderly, careful and respectful way!

The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)

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